One reason I support the “virtue” approach to morality is that, attractive as some moral rules are in the abstract, there are almost always cases in which good judgment requires either appropriate interpretation or even suspension of them.
Take the moral rule that one should always be honest. Honesty is clearly a virtue, but it can also be used as a weapon or as a cover for viciousness. I have on many, many occasions heard people say rude, mean, or insensitive things to others, and then defended their behavior by saying something like, “I’m just being honest.” I’m sure you have heard such things too. The fact that one is really thinking something does not by itself justify uttering or making public what one is thinking. Having followed the moral rule does not absolve one from the judgment of having behaved badly.
Thus honesty is a virtue in the way, for example, courage is. We should all strive to be courageous, but, as Aristotle argued, being courageous does not mean fighting every battle. It means, instead, fighting all and only those battles that good judgment—or “right reason”—indicates should be fought. By contrast, fighting every battle leads not only to a captious and truculent (and hence unpleasant) personality, but it also dissipates one’s effectiveness. Once others become aware that one is the sort of person who fights everything, they begin discounting what one says and does. One becomes The Guy Who argues About Everything, and it is all too easy to ignore such a person—even when he is right.
Such a person displays not courage, but rashness. That is just as much a vice as when one fails to fight battles that should be fought; such a person too is not courageous, but cowardly.
Similarly with honesty. The person who always speaks his mind is not honest but callous (cruel, meanspirited, etc.). This person probably also has an inflated sense of self-importance, thinking that speaking his mind is more important than whatever psychological damage he might inflict on others. That is not acting virtuously; it is just as morally blameworthy as the person who does not speak the truth when he should.
The difficulty, of course, is knowing when one should fight a battle or speak the truth. There are no short cuts to this; there is, alas, no finite set of rules that can uniquely determine in advance what one should do. Instead, good judgment is required, and good judgment is a hard-won skill based on experience, practice, comparison of cases, delicacy of perception, and plain good sense (to borrow from Hume’s description of what it takes to have good judgment in artistic matters).
Perhaps there are some virtues that are simpler, more straightforward, and therefore less requiring of judgment in application. Adam Smith argues that justice is such a virtue, which he contrasts on this criterion with beneficence. Argues Smith:
The rules of justice may be compared to the rules of grammar; the rules of the other virtues, to the rules which critics lay down for the attainment of what is sublime and elegant in composition. The one, are precise, accurate, and indispensable. The other, are loose, vague, and indeterminate, and present us rather with a general idea of the perfection we ought to aim at, than afford us any certain and infallible directions for acquiring it.
He has a point, but judgment will still be required in both kinds of cases. That leads me to believe that judgment is always necessary, which I think indicates that the key to morally proper behavior always lies first and foremost in the possession of good judgment. (Liberty might also be a necessary prerequisite, but that is the subject of a different conversation.)
That brings me back to honesty. Perhaps the proper rule is something like this: No matter how hard it is, when you should be honest, be honest; but do not be honest when you should not be honest, no matter how enticing it might seem. Not as intellectually satisfying, perhaps, as a single, universal rule, but truer to the complex and multifaceted reality of human social life.